– Documentary Photography: Truth and Consequences

Photography, and especially documentary photography, has been used as a tool because it can tell the truth. Photographs present proof in a tangible form, which makes it easier for us to find what relevance and meaning the subject has to our own lives.

Being thrust into the digital era, however creates a host of ethical dilemmas for photographers, editors and the general public. A multitude of questions arise: who and what should be considered reliable sources? what should be digitally altered and how drastically? how responsible is the media to get and tell the truth? Consequently, I believe that both the documentary photography genre and the photojournalism industry should be held to stricter standards. These photos and stories are still supposed to represent reality, unlike advertising or fashion photos which are intended to sell a product.

It is only a guess, but when a photographer such as Ron Haviv is making a statement through one of his photos, it is a drastically different statement than someone such as David LaChapelle . The intent of the photograph may be the same (to be viewed by others) but in viewing, vastly different emotions are evoked. In fact, I think that the photographic process differs vastly for documentary photography and commercial photography. The environment in which the photographs themselves are taken is often posed for commercial photography. Documentary photography relies on something that is a bit more organic (in most cases). This does not mean that one is of more value, but that their purposes are varied. And as a result, for documentary photography, a moment of truth should be apparent from what emanates from inside the frame.

From a technical (and perhaps artistic) standpoint, getting the shot right without needing or utilizing digital tools shies away from taking the easy way out. Sometimes it is a matter of luck, but more often than not, it is a combination of elements such as precision and vision. Well renowned photojournalist Henri-Cartier Bresson told photo editors that he dictated which shots were not to be altered or even cropped. This attitude lends a certain authenticity, an honest reality.

Furthermore, one must take into account the varied perspectives involved in any type of photography: there is the photographer’s truth, the subject’s truth and the viewer’s truth. Each has the ability to derive varying truths and alternatively, the ability to manipulate the truth. Herein lie ethical standards that fall mostly on the shoulders of the photographer. How does she or he behave behind the lens? In front of the computer or editors? What professional responsibilities are expected of him or her?

Many of the questions and issues raised here are unanswerable, a gray area, or require on-going philosophical debates. But being inundated with images on a constant basis, it would be comforting to think that the photographs and projects that are produced of the ‘documentary photography’ order are presented in a way that is honest to what the photographer saw and what the subject was experiencing in that moment.

Perhaps it is naive or even unrealistic given technology’s advancements, but I believe that despite the celebrity obsessed, media-crazed world that we live in today, a sense of truth should remain intrinsic to documentary photography.

Do you agree?